Monday, June 15, 2009

Democracy Was Never This Pretty

19th century painting of Pericles addressing the Athenian Assembly

Looking at the whole squalid mess in Albany now might make us yearn for the golden days of Athenian Democracy.
If we read our copies of Thucydides, we would thank God and our lucky stars for the mess in Albany. The Athenian democracy was a much worse, and bloodier mess, than anything Albany ever dreamed of. The Athenian Assembly was dominated by demagogues who played factional politics of the worst kind and persuaded the Assembly to exile war heroes like Themistocles, driving him into the arms of the Persians. The Assembly voted to rebuild the temple to Athena (breaking a solemn oath not to do so), and to pay for it with funds embezzled from the Delian League, a mutual defense fund among all the allied Greek city states in the event the Persians returned (well, we did get the Parthenon out of that scandal). They voted to wage a disastrous war with Sparta, and in the midst of that war to launch an even more disastrous imperial adventure in Sicily. It was the Athenian Assembly that voted to massacre the inhabitants of Melos for disloyalty to the Athenian empire.

Democracy is ugly. It's not about selfless heroes rushing in on winged feet to save civilization. It is about committees negotiating between competing claims and interests, and hammering out agreements that no one likes, but everyone is willing to live with. Coalition building and parliamentary manipulation are inevitable, and unattractive, parts of this process. It's not pretty, it breaks our hearts with disappointment, it repels us with its vulgarity and chicanery, but it somehow works, at least better than anything else.

What may emerge from the attempted coup in Albany is a more truly democratic state legislature where policy is fought out on the chamber floor rather than settled in a hotel room between 3 people; the Senate majority leader, the Assembly majority leader, and the Governor. Thus was this state governed for decades.


June Butler said...

Counterlight, thanks for the history lesson and reality check. It was ever thus and worse.

kazza said...

The painting you have at the top is of and Athenian assembly after the death of Pericles in 429 BC